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Tour Report - Villages of South England: May 8 - May 20, 2017

We left the States four days before the start of the tour and stayed near Dublin. We flew Aer Lingus on the direct flight from Hartford (BDL) to Dublin. It was nice that we could have a friend drop us off at the airport instead of leaving from New York or Boston. Following the RS guidebook recommendation, we stayed in the town of Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dun Leary). Dun Laoghaire is 50 minutes from the airport using the Aircoach. Our B&B, the Windsor Lodge, was quite pleasant, and about half the price of staying in Dublin center city. It was a good place to relax after the overnight flight. Dun Laoghaire has some good restaurants, and we highly recommend McLoughlin’s for great pub food. Dublin was only a 20 minute DART train ride away, with the station being a short walk from the Windsor Lodge. We spent a day in Dublin and used another guest’s leftover ticket for the hop-on/off bus. The day was completed with a stroll through the Temple Bar neighborhood and a visit to the National Gallery.

On the day before the tour started, we flew from Dublin to Gatwick on Aer Lingus. Instead of taking the train to Canterbury, we booked a car service. The driver was very entertaining, and we had our first cultural connection to Britain on that ride. The car only cost around 10 pounds more than walk-up train tickets via London, and provided door to door service. We stayed at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge (same as the tour hotel) and had Sunday roast at the Thomas Becket pub.

The following sections of this report covers the tour itself. I will copy the daily itinerary from the RS website and add our own comments for each day of the tour.

Tour Day 1: Welcome to England
Before the tour started, we went to the Canterbury Tales attraction (not on the tour). The exhibits were entertaining albeit a bit cheesy. We had a great conversation with the man working in the gift shop. He even offered us a sample of mead, the fermented honey beverage popular in the middle ages. We also went to the Beaney gallery to take in some local art.

The beautiful medieval city of Canterbury is an easy train ride from central London — and the perfect jumping-off point for our Villages of South England adventure. We'll meet at our hotel at 5 p.m. for a "Welcome to England" get-together. Then we'll take an evening walking tour along Canterbury's colorful lanes and get acquainted over dinner. Sleep in Canterbury (3 nights). No bus. Walking: light.

All members of the tour group had been on RS tours except for two couples. One couple had been on 15 tours! The first group dinner was at Deeson’s. Note that alcohol was not provided on this tour at the group meals. The reason given was that having wine on the table is not customary in England, but it is also true that wine is more expensive than it is on others tours (i.e. Italy, Spain, Portugal). We were not expecting great food on this trip, but the group meals were all satisfactory (with excellent desserts). The tour group sat at one long table, which made it difficult to talk to more than a few people. Other restaurants for group meals had smaller tables.

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Tour Day 2: Canterbury Cathedral
This morning we'll make our own little pilgrimage to the impressive Canterbury Cathedral, one of the most important churches in England. After touring the cathedral (and learning about the dramatic martyrdom of Thomas Becket), we'll meet with conservators who are tasked with preserving one of England's largest collections of medieval stained glass. After lunch we'll take a walking tour through the historic layers of this pilgrimage city, finishing with a punt trip along the River Stour. The remainder of the afternoon and evening are free. No bus. Walking: moderate.

The stained glass conservation and restoration efforts were fascinating. We met with the head conservator, who exhibited great knowledge and passion about her work. The punt trip was fun, and the boatmen were entertaining. We ran into another tour couple at the Dolphin pub and had a nice dinner.

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Tour Day 3: Dover Castle and The White Cliffs
After breakfast we'll meet our bus and driver for a drive to the White Cliffs and the imposing fortress of Dover Castle. We'll explore the Great Tower and Medieval Tunnels before entering the WWII-era Secret Wartime Tunnels (from which the British directed the perilous evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940). After lunch we’ll take a short walk to explore the White Cliffs, famous for their geology and historic role. We'll return to Canterbury where the rest of your day is free to explore some of its museums and find a cozy restaurant for dinner. Bus: 2½ hrs. Walking: strenuous.

The wartime tunnels were interesting, and we went on an additional tour of the hospital facilities. For dinner we were on our own, and picked up wraps at Pret a Manger and wine at Marks and Spencer. We had a picnic in the garden next to the hotel.

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Tour Day 4: Rye, Battles and Beaches
Today we'll discover more of England's southeast coastline beginning with a stop in the half-timbered village of Rye, where we'll explore its cobbled streets and medieval passageways. After lunch we'll visit the ruins of Pevensey Castle, the site from where in 1066, the Norman King William launched his invasion of England and defeated the English King Harold in the Battle of Hastings. Then we'll stroll the South Downs Way for a view of England's famous white chalk cliffs at Beachy Head. We'll end our day peacefully, amidst the thatched roofs and timber-framed buildings of quaint Alfriston, where we'll enjoy dinner together and sleep (1 night). Bus: 3 hrs. Walking: strenuous.

At Pevensey Castle, we had a surprise tour of a nearby farm, complete with baby animals. The walk along Beachy Head was spectacular. Being from the east coast of the US, it is rare to stand in a place and see so much of the ocean horizon. How could ancient peoples have stood on these cliffs and believed the earth was flat?
Lodging and dinner in Alfriston was at the Star Inn. After dinner we walked to a local church and saw bell-ringers practicing. The bells were operated by pulling on long ropes that came out of openings in the ceiling.

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Tour Day 5: The Great Ships of Portsmouth
This morning we'll drive to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for a day devoted to Britain's rich nautical history. You'll have a chance to tour HMS Victory, the warship of Admiral Lord Nelson that defeated the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. We'll also visit the newly renovated Mary Rose Museum, built to showcase Henry VIII's sunken warship that was raised from the sea in the 1980s. You’ll also have the opportunity for a look at traditional woodworking skills in action at the historic boat workshop. Late this afternoon we'll drive to Salisbury, where we'll sleep (2 nights). Bus: 3 hrs. Walking: moderate.

We were surprised at how much we enjoyed Portsmouth. The Mary Rose exhibit was well done, and included some interesting AV effects. At the HMS Victory, admission included hand-held listening devices that provided thrilling commentary on the Battle of Trafalgar. We also went on a harbor boat ride. As luck would have it, a British navy ship was coming into port after six months at sea. It was heartwarming to see the crew’s family members greeting the ship as it arrived. We caught a glimpse of wild ponies as we drove through the New Forest.
Salisbury accommodations were at the Rose and Crown hotel, and the group dinner was at the Haunch of Venison.

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Tour Day 6: Salisbury and Stonehenge
We'll begin the day touring the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, famous for its rich lore and towering Gothic spire. In addition, we'll visit the Chapter House, which is home to one of four original copies of the Magna Carta, the 1215 document that first established that everyone — even the king — was subject to the law. This afternoon we'll venture out to nearby Stonehenge. We'll learn about and ponder the origins of these iconic stones that are as old as the Pyramids before returning to Salisbury for a free evening. Bus: 1 hr. Walking: moderate.

The cathedral was magnificent, and local tour guide was outstanding. We got the sense that local people are still strongly connected to Salisbury cathedral. Being at Stonehenge was a moving experience, but not as much as it was for me on my last visit in 1972. At that time, I was able to stand alone in the center of the stone circle at dawn. During our free time in Salisbury, we witnessed the installation of the new mayor, with costumes and pageantry fitting the occasion.
For a change of pace, we tried an Italian restaurant which was slightly disappointing. Other tour members raved about a Thai restaurant called the Giggling Squid.

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Tour Day 7: Corfe Castle and the Jurassic Coast
All aboard! After a morning drive through the enchanting Dorset countryside, we'll learn about England's railroad past with a ride on a preserved heritage steam railway. Upon arrival in the village of Corfe, we'll conquer the imposing hilltop ruins of Corfe Castle, one of the earliest castles to be built from stone. After lunch we'll travel west to discover the natural beauty of the Jurassic Coast and its geologic formations, which date back 185 million years. Our final destination is the cozy village of Chagford — within Dartmoor National Park — where we'll enjoy dinner together. Sleep in Dartmoor National Park (2 nights). Bus: 3½ hrs. Walking: moderate

Corfe castle was impressive, and it was fun to take the ride on the steam train. On the way to Chagford, we made an extra stop at a seacoast village where Broadchurch was filmed. The group stayed at ate at the Three Crowns Inn. Once again, it was amazing to see such large stretches of undeveloped coastline.

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Tour Day 8: Dartmoor National Park
Today we'll join a local guide and explore the natural wonders of Dartmoor National Park, home to wooded forests, desolate moors, and stone bridges. We'll learn about this compelling and varying landscape that inspired great literature, including The Hound of the Baskervilles. This evening is free for you to enjoy one of Dartmoor's man-made wonders, the cozy country pub. Bus: 3 hrs. Walking: moderate.

Tom, the local guide, was funny and informative. Tom even thanked us for helping Britain in WWII. Most of the tour group ventured out with Tom on the moors in heavy rain and fog. Without his help, we might not have made it back to the bus! The bus took us to the town of Tavistock for a lunch break. Back at the hotel, Gillian set up a Pimm’s party for us. (Pimm’s is a gin based drink with liqueur, fruit juices and spices). Dinner was on our own at the Globe Inn, a few doors away from the hotel.

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Tour Day 9: Pints and Penzance
We drive into Cornwall today, known for its dramatic, wave-swept coast and charming fishing villages. Along the way we'll stop and tour a family-owned brewery that has been brewing beer since the 1850s. After lunch, we'll visit the tranquil Trelissick Gardens, known for its woodlands, jaw-dropping views, and year-round display of colorful blooms. Then we'll continue our drive deeper into Cornwall and along its famed, rugged Penwith Peninsula. We'll end the day with dinner together in Penzance. Sleep in or near Penzance (3 nights). Bus: 3½ hrs. Walking: light.

The tour of the St. Austell brewery was well done. Gillian was not sure if we would have a guided tour, but it actually happened. We had a ploughman’s lunch and free beer samples. The bus continued on for a brief stop at Charlestown harbor and then on to Trelissick Gardens. This tour did not have many long periods on the bus, as we made frequent stops during a typical day. Lodging was at the Hotel Penzance, with dinner at the hotel.

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Tour Day 10: Penwith and Pasties
Today we'll spend the day exploring the Penwith Peninsula, home to fishing villages and rocky, windblown scenery. We'll begin the day learning all about Cornwall's most famous culinary contribution — the pasty — with a demonstration (and sampling!) of how these traditional one-handed meals are made. Then we'll don hard hats at the Geevor Tin Mine and learn about the importance of tin mining to this region and Britain's Industrial Age. We'll return to our home village with time for some exploration and dinner on your own. Bus: 3 hrs. Walking: moderate.

We heard the life story of the founder of Portreath Bakery, and then had a lesson on making pasties. The tour group kept the pasties and ate them for lunch later. The tin mine guide was entertaining and informative. His father and grandfather worked in the mine, so he was able to give us a meaningful perspective.

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Tour Day 11: St. Ives and St. Michael's Mount
This morning we'll conquer St. Michael's Mount, the dramatic rock island first inhabited by monks more than 1,500 years ago. Now a stately home, we'll have time to explore the castle and gardens before returning to the mainland. After lunch we’ll explore the picturesque harbor town of St. Ives. You can stroll the twisty lanes of the old town, visit one of its numerous art galleries, or grab some ice cream and people-watch at the beach before returning to our home village for a free evening. Bus: 2 hrs. Walking: strenuous.

St. Michael’s Mount was beautiful. We took a very short boat ride to the island because the walkway was underwater due to high tide. Due to the fact that the bus would have trouble navigating the streets in St. Ives, we were dropped off at the St. Erths station and took a magnificent train ride the rest of the way. St. Ives is a very pretty town with an artsy vibe. We visited a sculpture gallery and the local art association gallery, where we chatted with some local artists. We and several others stayed on later than the group and took the train back to Penzance. We ate at the Dolphin pub that evening.

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Tour Day 12: Tintagel Castle and Bath
This morning we'll head north and stop to see the dramatic ruins of Tintagel Castle, long associated with King Arthur. Then we'll head to our final destination, the elegant Georgian city of Bath (a wonderful place to extend your England vacation — or easily pop back to London). After a short walking tour, we'll enjoy a final dinner together and raise a hearty toast to our adventures. Cheers! Bus: 5 hrs. Walking: strenuous.

Tintagel Castle and the surrounding area were spectacular. It started to rain and hail during our hike up the cliffs, but stopped after we came back to the village.

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Tour Day 13: Tour Over After Breakfast
We stayed on in Bath for three extra nights. A number of tour members also stayed some extra days in Bath and there were probably others who wish they had. The Best of England tour started at the Brooks guest house on the day after our tour ended. We were surprised and pleased to run into somebody who was on the Sicily tour with us in April 2016. After Bath, we spent time with my wife’s penpal in Wales. We were dropped off at the Bristol airport and flew on Ryanair to Dublin. This was our first flight on Ryanair, and it worked fine. Finally, we spent one last night in Dun Laoghaire at the Ophira B&B before flying home on Aer Lingus.

The Village of South England tour has a nice mixture of small towns (Alfriston and Chagford) and larger towns (Canterbury, Salisbury, Penzance and Bath). Some tour members were not too pleased with the town of Penzance, being a gritty seaport. We heard that this tour stops at Falmouth instead of Penzance during the month of August. Perhaps RS could add a day in Bath at the end of the tour.

The tour was excellent. Tour guide Gillian was funny and knowledgeable. It was interesting to hear her explanations of word/expression origins. The tour group bonded well, and we had great fun.

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Bob, it was especially fun for me to read your trip report as I took this tour last September. I like your very relevant way of presenting your day to day experiences! Our tour had a few different day stops than yours but the same overnights. In September, we stopped at several gardens but not much was blooming in the late fall. Other than one day of misty, spooky rain at Dartmoor, we had wonderful weather and our group meals were all excellent. We loved this tour so I am happy to hear you enjoyed it, too.

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Thanks for posting. This is a tour I hope to take in 2018. It was especially helpful the way you placed the RS itinerary details side by side with your impressions for each day.

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Thanks, Bob. We were on the very first South England tour (in its current avatar.) They've made a few changes, but then, we were told that we were the guinea pigs! As someone commented, the earlier tours had garden stops, at least one of which I thought was way too long. (Formal garden fans on the tour disagreed.)

We had Gillian as our local guide on a Best of London tour a few years ago, and she was delightful.

I, too, like the format in which you presented your report. Nice job.

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Thanks for posting. I believe the Tom you mention was our guide on our Best of London tour a few years back. He was amazing. I would do any tour any time with Tom as the guide. We had Gillian for our local guide at a few locations. She was great too. Loved reading your report and I think it was Tom that first told me about PIMMS. Love it! New Orleans is a big PIMMS town too if you are every out that way.

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Thanks for posting your tour report. We, husband and I, were on the first reboot of the South England tour, along with Jane and her husband. You were in excellent hands with Gillian. She was our guide for Best of London.

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Thank you for your report! We are taking the Best of London tour this October and it helped me decide with day trips we wanted to take after our tour is over. We plan on staying an extra 2 nights in London and of course, 1 night pre-tour (unfortunately work schedules did not allow us more pre and post tour time). I have a feeling I could stay in London for a month and still not see and do everything I want to do!

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Thanks, everyone. Writing this report helps me put closure on the trip so I can more easily get back to my normal life.

We are glad that we spent extra time in Bath. The Best of England tour starts in Bath, so I guess I understand why the Villages of South England tour does not spend more time there. On the morning after the tour-Saturday 5/20- we joined the free Bath walking tour. These tours are operated by volunteers, and are very informative. Lunch was at Tagine Zhor, and excellent Moroccan restaurant. We were so full that we skipped dinner. In the afternoon we went to the Roman baths, which was fascinating. The Roman baths have some audio-visual effects that reminded us of the ones used at the Mary Rose exhibit in Portsmouth. We spent a couple of hours at the Roman baths and wished we had more time.

Sunday was a museum day. The Holburne Museum had an impressive special exhibit of the Bruegel dynasty. The Victoria Art Gallery had a nice selection of paintings covering a wide span of history. Dinner was at Sally Lunn's, which included a brief tour of the medieval kitchen below the current street level.

On Monday, we took a day trip to Oxford. I had not been there since 1972, and discovered many changes in the town (but not the colleges, of course). There is much more commercial development and many more tourists. We met people from Bulgaria, Argentina and Russia. After a pint at the Eagle and Chlld, we returned to Bath.

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Bob, this sounds utterly delightful! How fun to see the Broadchurch village -- I love how RS tour guides generally have their pulse on what Americans might like to see that's not necessarily on the tour itinerary. On the Scotland tour last year, the various guides always pointed out places where scenes from "Outlander" were filmed. I've not watched the show, but there were quite a few people on the tour who were thrilled to know that this was where Claire and Jamie blah blah blah.

I'm on Best of England this year (and have taken note of your Moroccan restaurant) and think I may have to do South of England next year. Thanks for reporting!

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We will be on this tour starting June 17 and really appreciate your report. Gillian will be our guide, too, and we've heard good things about her. This will be our ninth RS tour. We did Best of England last year and our guide, Mark, was instrumental in creating the South England tour. That's what inspired us to sign up.

Trying to decide what to pack is a bit of a challenge since we don't know what kind of weather to expect. And I have a new, lighter carryon so won't be able to take as much as in past tours. We're also concerned about possible restrictions on taking laptops and iPads. But I'm sure I'll figure it out and I know we'll have a great time.

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Thanks for the trip report. Considering this tour for next summer. Looks like they added a Cornwall stop at the fishing village (Port Issac) featured in the "Doc Martin" TV series (yay). Sounds so lovely. I would probably spend pre- tour time in London as I've never been there, but I'm unsure what to do post tour. I've always wanted to go to the Cotswolds and it doesn't look far from Bath, but need to do research if trains connect, or other options. For those who have been to both Bath and the Cotswolds - do you have a preference? Suggestions?

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You can do both. The RS tour doesn't give you a tour of Bath so I would suggest doing that. You can also take one day tours of the Cotswolds from Bath. I took this one:

Mad Max Tours.

There is little train service in the Cotswolds and if you don't have a car it isn't that easy to go from village to village.